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Dr. Mark Jordan ~ ENGL 1301: Composition & Rhetoric

Three-Part Format: Classification

The section that follows is another of six sections dealing with essay structure and various modes. This section deals with the Classification mode and is a modification of the basic essay outline given in the Basic Three-Part Format section.

In order to more easily navigate in the six overall sections dealing with the three-part document structure, use the Modes Navigation Bar below:

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Basic Format ~ Narration ~ Classification ~ Comparison/Contrast ~ Definition ~ Cause/Effect

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The Classification Mode

What the Modes Are

By the time you are working within this section of the course, you have probably completed assignments in at least one or possibly two "modes," though you may not have thought of them as that. So before going further, it is appropriate to discuss these "modes" and what they are.

A mode is a pattern of writing, or in even more basic terms, it's one of various ways to try to understand any topic or issue or problem. Put in yet different terms, the modes are fairly typical thinking or problem-solving patterns that people, over centuries, have discovered. In a writing class, of course we deal with modes in written form, but even before they were writing devices, they were--and are still--thinking devices. Given almost any issue, someone familiar with the modes can approach that issue in any of many ways in the effort to understand it better.

That person can think of examples of the issue or topic, for instance. That's the illustrative mode, in which you examine a topic by discussing general situations in which that topic occurs. For example, if the topic is grieving over the loss of a loved one, a way to explore that topic is to examine several different such situations of loss. Or a person can try to understand an issue or situation better by telling one long story about it; that's the narrative mode. Yet again, a writer can approach a topic by discussing several logical reasons which support some opinion about the topic. This is called the persuasive mode, and it is particularly suitable for arguing for a particular position on some issue on which there are several widely-held opinions.

There are other modes as well. The person, or writer, can deal with a topic, for instance the topic of racial bias, by discussing causes of racial bias; that's using the "cause" mode; or if the writer discusses consequences of racial bias, that's using the "effect" mode. If the writer discusses bigotry in the context of its opposite, racial tolerance, then he or she is using the comparison/contrast mode. Any of these modes is just another way to better understand a given topic. One of the main purposes of this class is to help you learn to both think and write using several different modes.

Definition of Classification

Continuing with the same hypothetical topic of racial bias, this imaginary writer might decide to explore that topic by breaking it down into its individual parts. In doing that, the writer is using the "classification" mode.

So to classify something, you break it into its parts. Why? Well, did you ever take something apart, when you were a kid, to understand it better? Or did you know somebody who did? They were dividing and classifying, and their purpose was to understand their topic better.

Features of the Classification Mode

Here are some of the major features of this mode of writing. Read this section carefully and refer back to it frequently while writing your classification essay.

  • When you break a whole something into its parts, you make categories.
  • There are many different ways to form these categories.
  • You form the categories on the basis of a PRINCIPLE OF CLASSIFICATION.

The reason there are many different ways to form categories is that there are many different possible Principles of Classification (which I will often refer to as the "P of C"). The P of C is the logic according to which you slice your pie (make your categories), and a different P of C will not only result in different categories, but can show you different things about a topic.

This is best understood with an example. If I say to you, "Okay, I want you to classify all cars made in the U.S..," most people would probably come up with three categories: Ford, GM, and Chrysler. That's fine, but in doing this most people would unconsciously be using a certain Principle of Classification: one that chooses categories ACCORDING TO MANUFACTURER. That's valid, but there's an important point that's easy to miss, and that point is that if you aren't consciously aware of what P of C you're using, you never think about other possible ones to use which might be much more useful. (In fact, the best classification essays are the ones which take advantage of unique or unlikely Principles of Classification.)

Once you've realized that other ways to slice the pie are possible, you may come up with a wide range of options you didn't see before: U.S. cars classified according to mileage; or according to performance; or according to reliability; -or according to passenger comfort; or according to looks; or probably according to any of a dozen other Principles. Any one of these is just as valid an answer to the classification assignment imagined above.

Another, worse effect of not being consciously aware of your P of C is that if you're not, you may mix one P of C with another, with disastrous effects. Suppose, by not consciously noting your original P of C above, you come up with these categories: Ford, GM, and Chevy.

There's a problem here, but would you catch it? The problem is that Chevy is part of GM, so how can it be a category equal to GM? Well, it can't. This would be a useless piece of writing, made worse by the additional problem that Chrysler got left out altogether.

Three Rules of Classifying

This brings us to three rules of classifying:

(1) ALWAYS USE A CONSISTENT PRINCIPLE OF CLASSIFICATION. Don't start with one and unconsciously switch in mid-essay to another. In the above example, Ford and GM are categories chosen according to manufacturer, while Chevy was chosen according to model--which is a subset of manufacturer, just like an English class is a subset of a Bachelor of Arts degree.

(2) ALWAYS MAKE SURE YOUR CATEGORIES DON'T OVERLAP IN ANY SIGNIFICANT WAY. If you screw up #1 above, you usually screw up #2 here also, just as, by unconsciously shifting from a Manufacturer P of C to a Model P of C, you had an entire category (Chevy) which didn't just overlap, but was completely contained within another category (GM).

On the other hand, sometimes the only way to get away from a little overlap is by making some fairly artificial boundaries between categories. In certain topics, that's okay. I'm talking about topics which by their nature don't divide obviously into separate categories but instead tend to form a spectrum or continuum. Members of these types of topics change only slightly by degrees, though these degrees ultimately add up to a lot.

Again, this is clearer with an example. If U.S. cars are classed by manufacturer, the category boundaries jump right out: three manufacturers whose cars are visually and otherwise different from one another. But if the cars are reclassified by mileage, the boundaries are not so clean-cut. In fact, I can make just about as many categories as I want. If I want three, I might make one of less than 20 mpg (miles per gallon), a second of 20-30 mpg, and a third of over 30 mpg. Or I could have many categories for every 5 mpg of change. See what I mean? Keep this different type of P of C in mind. It's neither better nor worse, just different.

(3) NEVER LEAVE OUT ANY SIGNIFICANT MEMBERS OF THE OVERALL GROUP WHEN MAKING YOUR CATEGORIES. This is the rule which really separates a classification essay from, say, an example essay. In an example essay about racial bias, to go back to that sample topic, I'm free to talk about several features of racial bias, for instance. I choose interesting examples of features of racial bias and discuss them. But in a classification essay along those same lines, I have to discuss ALL the features of racial bias--or at least all the MAIN features of it--or else I haven't truly classified it; I've written an example essay which I'm falsely calling a classification essay.

When I say you must deal with all MAIN or SIGNIFICANT members of the overall group, that is an important word to note. You can't leave out obviously crucial categories and still say you have a true classification, but many times there will be several really important categories and a whole slew of minor ones, or at least several minor ones which you really don't need to discuss, or want to discuss. There are two ways to handle this situation: by NARROWING YOUR TOPIC or using a DISCLAIMER.

Choosing to classify racial bias according to its MAIN characteristics while leaving out minor characteristics is, in itself, an example of narrowing a topic. Another example would be to classify racial bias YOU HAVE WITNESSED according to its main characteristics. Yet another example would be to classify it IN ODESSA, or ON THE OC CAMPUS, according to its main features, or according to its main victims, or whatever.

A disclaimer has even a more specific focus than a narrowing of topic. An example of using a disclaimer would be classifying cars made in the U.S. according to manufacturer, but leaving out Toyota and Honda on the grounds that even though these manufacturers do have plants in the U.S.., they are not truly U.S. car manufacturers. A disclaimer names specific categories that will not be discussed, tells why they're being left out, and generally is used when the writer anticipates being questioned by the reader as to why such-and-such a category is missing.

Choosing and Wording a Principle of Classification

Let's move back for a moment to the more basic procedure of simply figuring out how to word your P of C. The most straightforward approach is to write something like, "I'm going to classify [state your overall group] ACCORDING TO [state your P of C]." The key words in this pattern are "according to." An equally effective substitute for these key words is "on the basis of." And there are no doubt other equally good substitutes. The important thing is to explicitly, plainly state your gauge or yardstick which you're using to choose categories, rather than proceeding unconsciously with some Principle of Classification. Usually, if you proceed unconsciously, the P of C you use will be the most obvious one, meaning you are overlooking many other possibilities which, because they are less obvious and less familiar, could help you learn much more about the topic than the obvious Principle of Classification.

One last point about classifications concerns the relationship of the P of C to the thesis of the essay. Remember, your thesis consists of your OPINION about your topic. Another way to think of a thesis is that it states the PURPOSE of your essay, its MAIN POINT. Usually, the P of C in a classification essay is the thesis (though not always). If the purpose of the essay is clear in the P of C, then that P of C is also your thesis.

For example, if you're going to classify cars according to mileage, your purpose and thesis are quite clear: you want to know what cars get the best mileage. If you classify racial bias on the OC campus according to where it happens, your purpose is still fairly clear: you probably want to know how serious of a problem it is, and where it is most serious, so something can be done about it in those areas.

However, consider this example: suppose I say I'm going to classify students in my classroom according to where they sit. What's my thesis, my purpose? Do I really just want to know how many students sit where? More likely, that P of C is hiding a covert thesis--not intentionally, perhaps, but hiding it nonetheless. I might well have the purpose of trying to seek some connection between seating choice and grade performance. If I do, I either need to reword my P of C to more accurately reflect my true purpose--my thesis--or else add a thesis right after the P of C which states that purpose. In fact, a full-fledged thesis, which might come only at the conclusion of a classification essay, would go so far as to state not only my purpose, but my conclusion as to whether there is a traceable link between seating choice and grade performance: yes there is, or no there isn't. As far as how to handle this less visible purpose while stating the Principle of Classification, one approach is to write "I'm going to classify [state your overall group] ACCORDING TO [state your P of C] for the purpose of [state your purpose, your thesis]."


Outline for a Classification Essay

This section presents a specific outline which you should use in writing your classification essay. You will be graded in large part on how well you conform your essay to this outline. Here are some of its main features:

  • It is modeled closely on the Three-Part Format outline which you have already studied and used. The most notable difference is that the Main Body paragraphs, which in that outline contained reasons, will now contain categories--ONE CATEGORY PER BODY PARAGRAPH.
  • If you have three categories, you will probably have an essay consisting of five paragraphs: an intro paragraph, three body paragraphs devoted to one category each, and a concluding paragraph. Each additional category would add an additional paragraph, so that with five categories you would probably have seven paragraphs.
  • The reason I use the word "probably" is that the number of paragraphs is not carved in stone. If one gets longer than about 3/4 of a page, I would start looking for a likely place to subdivide it--usually between the GE and the SE for a body paragraph, perhaps between a lengthy background segment and the thesis for an intro paragraph. The main rule of thumb is never start a new paragraph without knowing why you're doing so. Ask yourself what that reason is.
  • Your number of categories will be determined in large part by the nature of the topic you choose, but are controllable to some degree by various other means such as narrowing your topic, using disclaimers, and combining small similar categories into larger ones. To keep your essay length manageable, you should shoot for three to five categories. PLEASE DON'T HAVE ONLY TWO CATEGORIES. You should also remember that if you choose a larger number, you still need to develop each body paragraph fully, so in truth you are obligating yourself to a longer essay with each category you add. If you choose three categories, your essay length should be similar to that of the 1st essay with its three reasons: about three typed, double-spaced pages. It should be accordingly longer for four or five categories.

Here's the outline:


A. BACKGROUND INFO: Name your overall group to be classified.

B. THESIS: State your Principle of Classification, and if needed add a sentence stating the purpose of your P of C.

C. PREVIEW: List your categories. Any disclaimers should also be mentioned here.




1. TOPIC SENTENCE (TS): Name your 1st category.

2. GENERAL EXPLANATION (GE): Describe the characteristics of the category. Sometimes these characteristics turn into something resembling subcategories, which simply means you have a list of the same 3 or 4 characteristics which you discuss with each category in turn. This is a good way to ensure you have plenty to say about each category.

3. SPECIFIC EXAMPLE (SE): Tell a story about or describe an individual who is a member of this category. Given the type of topics I assign for this mode, by "individual" I almost always mean an actual person.

4. CONCLUDING SENTENCE (CS): End with a sentence simply reminding the reader that you're telling this story about this particular person because he/she is a typical member of the category you've been discussing.


1. TS

2. GE

3. SE

4. CS


1. TS

2. GE

3. SE

4. CS

D. 4th CATEGORY (If Necessary; should contain the same four elements)

E. 5th CATEGORY (If Necessary; also the same four elements)



A. SUMMARY OF CATEGORIES: Simply list the categories again as you did in the preview.

B. RESTATEMENT OF THESIS: This may require only restating your P of C, or it may need also restating your purpose, along with revealing your final opinion in regards to this purpose.


By studying this outline, you should be ready to compose a competent and effective classification essay according to the topic choices you are given. For additional help, below you will find a sample student essay. However, please ask questions on items which confuse you. That is the main way to control how well you understand this mode and how well you do on any assignment utilizing it.



A Sample Student Essay

While reading this essay, look for each element of the outline in turn. Because it is an actual student essay, it may not fulfill each element absolutely perfectly, but nevertheless it represents strong work, with much good to be said about it, and much to show you about an essay of your own in this mode.

One additional note: Please realize that in this web format, it is very difficult to indent paragraphs; therefore this sample essay does not use paragraph indents. However, it is still customary in academic work to indent each new paragraph and also to double space the entire document.

The Labor of Love or Not

"Push! Push! Breathe short breaths! O.k. You're doing fine. One more time." These words all sounded like they were coming from far away. All I could think about was the pain and pray it would soon be over. This is a pretty familiar story to women who have had a child and most of us know that all that pain is forgotten as soon as that tiny child is laid in your arms. This experience and how we raise our children however, differ greatly. Some mothers try their hardest and do their best, others coast by with enough effort to get the job done, and still others shut down and totally neglect their children.

We have all seen the type of mother who tries her hardest and we hope that we will be able to live up to this high standard. These mothers always put their children first, no matter what. They love talking and visiting with their children. These mothers try their hardest to punish their children equally and fairly, rarely using spanking as a method of punishment. The children of these mothers flock to their mothers and love to be around them; they know that their mothers listen to them. My mother was and is a mother who tried and tries her hardest (perhaps I'm just a little prejudiced.) She was always there for my little brother and I. Anytime I was upset I could talk to her and she always (and still does) made me feel better. When I was about five years old my Mom and Dad owned a grocery store in Comstock (don't blink, you'll miss it) where I grew up. One day mom sent me to the store for some milk. You could see the store from our house, but I had to walk up a hill to get there (it looked more like a mountain back then.) After I had gotten the milk I started home. About a forth of the way down the hill, the steepest part, I started to run. Faster and faster, I went until suddenly I realized that I couldn't slow down or stop. I tumbled down that hill and didn't quit falling until I was almost at the bottom. I sat there with dirt in my hair and on my teeth, tears streaming down my face, and my nice neat pig-tails all lopsided; then my mother appeared to make it all go away. That was when I decided that my mother must have some kind of mommy-magic. Now though I know that it wasn't magic, but her trying her hardest to be there for me and loving me with all her heart.

Unlike the moms that try their hardest, some mothers just coast by with enough effort to get the job done. I know that sounds pretty blunt and rude, but it's true. These mothers do not put their children first, but third, forth, or fifth. Sometimes they want to visit with their children, if it's convenient for them. When disciplining their children these mothers usually spank them and send the child to its room. They do not talk to the child and try to explain to the child why its in trouble. These children seem to acquire this same nonchalant attitude towards their mothers eventually. When the children are young though they need and want their mothers attention. A friend of mine from high school has a one year old little boy. She spends just enough time with him and tries just hard enough to get the job of raising him done. I had heard some disturbing things about how she was raising her son (with that less is more approach.) One afternoon she left her little boy with the babysitter to go to a dance, which was fine. What was not fine though was that she had told the babysitter that she would be back around 1:00 a.m. She went out and had herself a good ol' time. She did not return to pick up her son until 10:00 a.m. the next morning. This is a prime example of a mother who only does just enough; a mother who puts her child 3rd or 4th on her list of priorities.

The third type of mother and the absolute worst is the mother who simply shuts down and ignores her child. These mothers do not think of their children at all. These children do not fit anywhere on their mother's list of priorities. They don't communicate with their children and if they do talk to them it's only to scream a string of obscenities at them. There is no set of discipline for these children and there are no rules for them to follow. The punishment they receive is a slap on the face or a strap across the back. As far as how these kids react to their mother, they react with fear and try to stay as out of her way as possible. There is a girl about my age who lives in the same town as I do. She is one of these atrocities of our society. She has been turned in to the welfare offices numerous times, somehow she always gets around it. I saw her in the grocery store one day and she stopped to talk (we knew each other from high school.) Her little girl who is two and the same age as my little boy, was with her. She was dirty and she smelt like she hadn't had a bath in days, but that was pretty much the norm. The thing that bothered me the most was that every time her mother's hand, arm, or body got close to her she flinched and her eyes widened in fear. The little girl also didn't respond to anything I asked her. She didn't seem to know many words. I found this sad because my little boy was talking up a storm. I guess when a mother doesn't spend any time with her child and doesn't bother to talk to it this is the result.

Everyone does not react the same way to motherhood. Some mothers try to do the best they can and try to be loving and understanding. Others try enough to squeak by, and others have not the will or the capacity to love to be a mother. Mothers can control what kind of mother they want to be. It's all up to the individual. The choice for children is obvious.


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